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ATA and Johnson County’s JO bus service reach agreement on shared administration

It’s just an administrative agreement, but the pact between Johnson County and Kansas City public transit systems that was signed last week had a historic feel to it just the same.

After all, it’s been 33 years since the two bus services — Johnson County’s JO and Kansas City’s Metro — parted ways.

It was money, specifically the idea that Johnson County could save costs by splitting off from the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, that caused that breakup in 1981.

Now that very same idea has brought the two back together, with the immediate appeal of saving administrative personnel costs and the possibility down the road of removing hassles from traveling across the metro area by bus.

Because the combined front office will need fewer administrators, the county stands to save about $455,000 per year, according to Johnson County estimates.

Johnson County Commission Chairman Ed Eilert and ATA Chairman Robbie Makinen signed the agreement with a flourish at a special ceremony complete with feather pen and sheet cake. Afterward, they talked about what the new agreement will eventually mean for riders.

The move is a significant first step toward a more efficient regional transportation system, they said. In time, such a system will not only save money in administration but will make it easier on riders to go between Johnson County and Kansas City, “without having a passport, without having to transfer to two different agencies, without making three or four different phone calls,” said Makinen.

“This is one of those situations when the stars will align and there’s something in it for everybody,” he said.

Eilert stressed that Johnson County still controls its own spending on its part of the bus system. But being part of a regional system should make it easier to get federal grants, he said.

Makinen agreed, saying the economics of scale on such things as bus shelters and other capital equipment will save both governments money.

Johnson County Commissioner Steve Klika, who is also a member of the ATA board, agreed.

“This is a big deal,” he said. Boundaries between transit areas have discouraged bus access to jobs, shopping centers and other destinations.

“My job was to try to find out how to turn the lights out, turn the keys, close the doors and turn it over to a regional system,” Klika said. “And now we’re here.”

In the next couple of years, Klika said, transit officials will begin to look at how the regional routes and services should look.

And a study is underway on the possibility of more consistent fares across the region.

That’s in the future, though. Riders who hop on the JO tomorrow will not notice any difference in their experience that can be attributed to the new agreement.

The agreement deals mainly with administrative issues, not routes or even bus drivers. Johnson County will pay Kansas City transit $430,000 next year and $489,250 in 2016 to take over management of the system. The amounts are different because of transitional costs.

The county already has reaped some benefits, says Deputy County Manager Penny Postoak Ferguson. Ferguson told the Johnson County Commission that recent grants totaling $5.7 million for surface transportation and air quality measures were more than double what the county usually gets, partly due to the regional agreement.

Johnson County commissioners still will have control over spending for the county’s part of the system, Eilert emphasized.

Both governments will have to deal with revenue issues in the not-too-distant future, though. A five-year forecast still shows expenses exceeding ongoing revenue on both sides of the state line if no policy or fare changes are made, said Postoak Ferguson.

As they prepared to approve the agreement at a recent meeting, some commissioners expressed interest in doing something about their representation on the bi-state board, which is made up of five members from each state. Only one of those Kansas representatives is from Johnson County. That type of change would have to be approved by both state legislatures and Congress.

The Kansas City transit system, with its 65 routes and 750 employees, dwarfs the JO, which has only 15 routes and will lose a few of its 11 employees in the transition. The county commission also approved an arrangement that helps place those employees in other county offices when vacancies occur.

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